Death At One’s Elbow: The Long Goodbye Of The Record Store

Record StoreIt wasn’t too long ago when I was an active contributor to the demise of the local independent record store. Of course, now even big box retailers—once the biggest threat to these mom and pop operations—have drastically reduced their available floor space and they are no longer seen as the biggest threat to traditional record stores.

For the longest time I felt guilty about their dwindling numbers, that is, until I conditioned myself to become a different kind of shopper and, I suppose, a different kind of music fan.

Let me start at the beginning, when the closest college town sported at least a record store on every other block and because of this, became a music Mecca…a destination for Saturday afternoon jaunts for my friends and I. There were so many of them that they actually tolerated the most inane of questions. I remember going up to one of the clerks at one particularly hip record store with an armful of records and asked him which ones sounded most like the Smiths. I was really into the Smiths at the time, and all of the records I brought to him were grabbed up solely on the cover art alone. If it looked anything remotely like the cover of the Smiths’ debut album, then it was worth the inquiry.

The young gentlemen, himself a bass player in a local band with a few records out on an independent label in Boston, politely explained that New Order in no way resembled the Smiths in sound. He did encourage me to keep looking, because New Order was apparently from the same town as the Smiths. He didn’t make me feel stupid and, because of this, I ended up spending way too much on pointless Smiths import singles and an e.p. by a new band. When I brought it home, my Dad took notice of the inventory. He stopped on Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis and casually announced to my mom, “Look Mother, our son has bought a record by a band called the Butthole Surfers.”

Don’t bother looking for that record store anymore; it’s no longer in business. The last time I was there, the bins were almost bare and the store looked to be unmanned. I walked up to the register to see if there were any employees in the back and found a middle-aged black man with dreadlocks quietly sitting on the floor behind the counter.

He acknowledged me with a bloodshot glare and didn’t respond when I said “Hi!” Since I had obviously pissed him off by acknowledging his presence, I left as quietly as I could.

There were other record stores, but only one is still open today.

The Record Collector possessed a holier-than-thou attitude, very similar to the characters in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and it was a great honor to transition from being identified as just another used-cd parasite to a recognized music connoisseur. As a regular, you were acknowledged with a knowing nod when you walked in and you were treated with a higher degree of respect during check out. They didn’t roll their eyes when you brought up Accept‘s Metal Heart album because it meant that you were researching the aspects of German heavy metal for the greater good. And even if you did admit that you were buying the Accept album because you actually liked it, you were still well regarded because of the bravery of having it in your collection.

The store moved, parking became a rarer commodity, and because of this my visits became less frequent. By this time, I had begun to shop at online retailers and big box locations. It was there that I noticed a noticeable difference in prices. For items that I normally paid $15 for, I could find for $10. Multiply that times three discs and you had room for another disc with the money saved. I felt a little guilty, but I rationalized that the smaller stores never seemed to carry the records that I wanted anymore. Too many times I would come in with a list of four or five must have items only to find none of them, with only an offer of “We can order that for you” to save my business. So could I, and usually at a savings.

A few years ago, I began to notice that the big box was starting to scale back on the square-footage of floor space they offered for CDs. As a result, I saw a huge decrease in available titles. Where before I could usually find a few catalog titles for my collection, I saw that they were replaced with redundant greatest hits packages or similar compilations. I stopped shopping and, apparently, other shoppers did too. The floor space was quickly replaced with video games and other items.

This didn’t surprise me as I used to work as a vendor for the country’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart. There was little to no mark-up for cds—usual for Wal-Mart, since the retail giant had formulas worked out to see how profitable each square foot of the store was. Considering how much space was devoted to an item with limited profitability, the store generally surrounded the cd racks with items that had a positive impact on the department’s bottom line. The attractive price point of Bon Jovi‘s Slippery When Wet may have brought you back to the electronics department, but they were hoping you were leaving with a few other items before you left. And if you left with nothing but a few cds, believe me, the store did not appreciate your business.

I was reduced to online retailers, and guess what?

I loved it.

They had what I was looking for, teased me with things I didn’t even know I wanted, and gave me a price that was more attractive than what I could find locally. The solitude of my shopping experience was a great experience too. I no longer had to consider the feelings of whoever I was with (who hasn’t felt the audible sighs of a significant other who’s ready to leave the record store while you’re only up to the “F” section?) and I no longer had to give glares to those casual shoppers who jump ahead of your alphabetical search, thereby interrupting your systematic process. Through Amazon, Insound, Newbury Comics, and a host of others, I could score the bins in late night ecstasy until my common sense gandered at the shopping cart total and compared it to the reality of my online bank account window that showed me that the car loan payment had yet to clear. With tired and sad fingers, I would update the cart totals and promise not to chastise my wife for buying a few pairs of shoes for the next three months.

Recently, I found myself the recipient of a gift card for a national book store chain, and I vowed to spend every dime on cds. I composed a list of must-haves and went to the store where they devoted a special section to music cds. I immediately noticed the prices were higher than what I was used to paying, but I understood the basic economics of selling cds in our modern economy. I prepared myself to spend a good hour looking through the bins at my own leisure. I found that my years of online shopping had spoiled me, and not because of the price differences.

The section had a few extra shoppers and the overzealous clerk actually made not one, but two drive-bys. He politely asked if there was anything in particular I was looking for, and I was actually bothered by the interruption. I tried to remain calm as I looked for Heart‘s Dog & Butterfly, couldn’t find it, and took a deep breath instead of laying into this poor guy for just doing his job. He moved on, only to stop by with another “Are we still doing ok?” about twenty minutes later. I shot him a stern look of a professional record shoppers, mumbled a “Just browsing,” and went back to review the items that I placed at the front of the sections.

I would do this in my younger days, give a quick walk around and look at those titles that I was considering, picking up only the ones that jumped out and leaving the rest for the store clerk to refile at closing. I took my booty up to the counter and the gentleman did something that I hadn’t heard in years. He actually began to talk about music with me. What’s this? A matching of wits?! The guy was just a few years younger than me, but he made a very fatal mistake by focusing on the She & Him album that I was buying with my gift card. Out of all of the titles, this was the one he decided to focus on. And then, he begins to inquire about why it was so popular? I explained to him that I couldn’t answer the question since I hadn’t heard the album, which was why I was buying it, but that it seemed to have something to do with the two performers. He then proceeds to wax poetically on the talents of Zooey, the half of the duo that I had no frame of reference to. I, on the other hand, had a few M. Ward titles and was prepared to do battle with that topic. Instead, I got an earful about the filmography of Zooey and prayed that the guy would hurry up and just scan my shit.

Yes, the internet had made me into an isolationist. He was doing all of the right things, but I was so used to not experiencing “the right thing” that it worked all wrong for me. I vowed to limit my retail experience further, thereby damaging music retailers even more in the process, and I felt not an ounce more of guilt about it. I had written off brick and mortar entirely, only looking back to reminisce and feel somewhat sad that my own kids won’t get a chance to really experience the joys of record shopping when they’re older. It’ll be up to me to advise them that New Order sounds nothing like the Smiths and that they should listen to every track carefully before shelling out their hard-earned money on music they may not even like that much. I’ll immediately show them my She & Him cd as proof of that.

At work, I found myself proudly extolling all of my useless music trivia to a younger gentleman who I befriended after hearing him talk about Mastodon with another employee. From there I learned that his taste in music didn’t end with progressive metal; it’s actually quite impressive in scope. He’s learning about ’80s indie rock—particularly the works of classic SST artists—and he’s asking all the right questions. More importantly: he’s paying attention, which is something of infinite importance for someone my age. If he likes Minor Threat, I encourage him to seek out Wire. Then I feel comforted when I hear a follow up of how Pink Flag is spinning.

That’s not a mistake. I said “spinning.”

At twenty-one, he’s discovering music through the most inefficient of means: through buying cds. He’s so totally immersed in the concept of the record, that he’s actually following the exact same formula if the record companies would have used Napster as a friend instead of a foe.

He uses the internet at his testing grounds and orders cds based on his findings and, I’m proud to say, yours truly as an occasional source. It blows my mind when he tells me how he’s anxiously awaiting Rites of Spring or has pre-ordered Them Crooked Vultures.

Kids still do this?

They obviously don’t, so it’s clear that I’ve found a rare breed.

On one afternoon, I took him to that last remaining record store only to discover that it had gone. Immediately, I felt regret. I’ve let the last holdout of independent retailers down by not supporting it more frequently, effectively killing it out of convenience. A piece of my past has disappeared and a potential future for him is unfulfilled. I silently mourn the moment and fester in my own guilt.

Just as I turn a corner, I see a familiar neon sign.

Evidently, the economy is poor enough and the market for physical music so slim that the store needed to move farther from the high rent/high traffic retail spaces into a more cost effective location. The square footage looks a bit smaller than the old space (which was really their second location as the original one was too small to accommodate the increasing foot traffic) and the parking situation still sucked, but I was relieved that it survived.

I saw a lady pull out from her metered parking space and quickly claimed it.

Once there, we were met with complete disregard. The last time I was there, at least three workers were present. Now there was one. Before, the owner would come out to visit, slyly recommending a Mates of State album, causing an almost Pavlovian reach for my wallet.

Once I noticed a pile of newly acquired used CDs he was pricing, about a dozen titles that someone decided to part with, and two of the most acknowledged rock albums in history—Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds—were part of the collection.

“What. The. Fuck.” I offered the owner, “I don’t care how bad things are, you never get rid of Sgt. Pepper’s or Pet Sounds.”

He shook his head in agreement before offering his admirable business owner take: “I don’t care why they’re selling it. I just know it won’t take too long to sell to someone else.”

The stark reality of record stores is that he’s no longer in the front of the store like he used to be. Instead, he’s selling the rarities on his eBay store, packing them for UPS delivery (insurance encouraged), and trying to maintain a Power Seller status.

I understand, but my young friend will never get a chance to.

The girl behind the counter barely makes eye contact; she can barely take her hands off the QWERTY keyboard on her phone to ring us up.

He chose Up On The Sun because I told him that was the next step after Meat Puppets II.

I chose a Deerhunter e.p. because I remembered how e.p.’s always served in a pinch when visiting a record store will little pocket cash. But on this day, it wasn’t a case of too little cash flow; it was an issue of limited inventory. The Deerhunter e.p. was literally the only thing in the store that I really “needed,” and the second choice was a marked promo copy of the Bee Gee‘s Odessa re-issue that was curiously overpriced.

The e.p. purchase was all they would get out of me today. It will probably be all they get out of me going forward too. Between the limited parking, the diminishing inventory, and the decreasing interaction, there isn’t a lot of reason for returning. I can’t blame them for these faults, but I can’t save them either. There was a mutually beneficial relationship before, but now it feels more like charity than true passion.

And even though my passion hasn’t faded much since those days, the place where we would all congregate certainly has. You’re here, farther removed from the brick and mortar than ever before. We cling to the idea and appeal of those stores because we’re ingrained to believe it. But as those stores grow fewer and fewer, we find ways to adapt. Then we reach a point where we don’t notice that the store which fostered so many memories is now gone, replaced with a higher-profit retail store. We walk by each other, invisibly directing each step with a Smiths tune while the person who brushed by us may be following the same urge to go out and find the one that you love and who loves you.

It was easier to find contact in between the “SM-SP” section, but we’re reduced to random encounters and surprising discoveries in the work cafeteria. As sad as it is, it is our reality in this new century.

Who killed the record store? The big box retailers? The internet? Major labels? Complacent staff? Consumers? There’s enough blame to go around, and as much as Record Store Day makes us feel nostalgic and prompts us to revisit these retail stores, there’s no way they’re coming back.

Our record stores are now these very websites, where we gush over lost classics and argue over the importance of Animal Collective. Our disagreements and obsessions are the ties that bind, and the best thing about being able to congregate online is that we won’t be surprised by the Master Card bill at the start of the next billing statement.

We can trust the opinions of our neighborhood, and we can pick up the slack that our closing record stores leave behind or no longer serve.

And when the next kid comes by, thinking New Order may be cut from the same cloth as the Smiths, we can recommend a more suitable substitution while making sure our urge to laugh is kept in check.

Previously: Buying Records in Record Stores is Cool; Record Store Day: What’d you get? What’s the point?.

5 thoughts on “Death At One’s Elbow: The Long Goodbye Of The Record Store”

  1. Detroit is chuck full of great independent record stores with lots and lots of parking… cheap cheap

    I find it best to head out record hunting without an agenda….who knows what youre going to find….thats the fun addicting part…

    make sure you head over to bob mays house….first killing joke record?…$3…nothern soul 45s…..yes please….

  2. Ann Arbor may not have as many record stores as we used to, but we’ve still got a couple. Wazoo is exactly like it was 20 years ago. Encore is nearly the perfect used record/CD store, in the classic mold of Hi Fidelity but less obnoxious. And there are others here as well, I just don’t shop at them. So I don’t see record stores dying around here anytime soon. One of the many reasons I like living here.

  3. Forgot Saturday was Record Store Day and went on Friday instead. I’ll never stop shopping at Streetlight… till they close the place up. The online experience, while vastly more convenient, offers no alternative for absent-mindedly thumbing through the stacks and stumbling upon a gem you didn’t even know you were looking for. In fact, new plan in place to visit once a month. Now I merely need to execute the plan.

  4. Real nice article, Todd. I find it quite sad that modern technology has replaced human interaction at local independent record stores. I know that major urban areas around the country will probably always have some genuine brick and mortar outlets of some sort, but it will never be like it was when I was growing up and when I went to college. I guess most music consumers have embraced the internet and digital downloads – not me – not yet at least.

  5. Sadly, Todd, despite being a former long-time record store clerk myself, I have joined your cyber customer ranks: Believe it or not, there is a dearth of record stores in NYC–no more Virgin or Tower–and the majority of the “mom and pops” still standing mostly carry over-priced wares, charging 1999 prices for new CDs. Sometimes for used ones, too. [sigh]

    Meanwhile, I’ve bought some cool used stuff on Amazon for around $5 a pop, including shipping. Damn.

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